Since calling New Jersey home, the Metropolitan Riveters have boasted the NWHL’s greatest goaltender. As the first graduate from the St. Cloud State Huskies to compete in the budding league, where she established herself as a workhorse goaltender, ranking second in the conference in saves, the arrival of Katie Fitzgerald in the Garden State signified a turning point for the franchise.
Capturing the league’s Goaltender of the Year Award in her rookie season, Fitzgerald delivered on all accounts. From achieving the first shutout in franchise history to becoming the first major award winner in club history, Fitzgerald was destined for greater heights.
With a league that has featured world-class goaltending talent such as Brianne McLaughlin and Amanda Leveille, along with Asian stars Nana Fujimoto and Sojung Shin, all possessing experience with their respective national teams, Fitzgerald’s ability to rise to the occasion has enabled her to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with such luminaries.
Heading into the 2017-18 season, her second in Riveters colors, there was no sophomore slump for Fitzgerald. Gaining the opportunity to compete in the All-Star Game, suiting up for Team Ott (named in honor of fellow goaltender Brittany Ott), such a milestone-filled season definitely started on an exciting, and historic, note.
With the New Jersey Devils becoming the first team to engage in an agreement with an NWHL club, this landmark achievement was commemorated by a game at the Prudential Center. Taking on the Boston Pride, there was a unique sense of coincidence in the fact that future All-Star teammate Ott was between the pipes for the visitors from Beantown.
Recording 30 saves in a convincing 4-1 victory, delighting Riveters and Devils fans alike, Fitzgerald etched her name in both club and league lore. Becoming the first goaltender to win a regular season game in an NHL arena, it was a foreshadowing of more monumental achievements to come.
Such a sparkling performance was the catalyst towards a titanic ten-game winning streak. Defeating the Pride four times, while the Buffalo Beauts and Connecticut Whale each fell thrice, her only shutout of the season came during said streak, blanking the Whale by a 4-0 tally on December 3, 2017.
Fitzgerald’s remarkable 10-0 run signified a franchise record, extending into January 2018. As a side note, the month of January also included an epic match for Fitzgerald. Standing between the pipes for Team NWHL, she provided an admirable effort in an exhibition versus the US Olympic Team on January 13, 2018. Playing two periods of shutout hockey, Fitzgerald was a wall of stone against a highly talented US roster that also featured NWHL talent. With eventual gold medal winning goaltender Maddie Rooney on the opposing end of the ice, it was unique in the fact that both played collegiately in the State of Hockey (Rooney with the Minnesota-Duluth Bullodgs). Although the US would break Fitzgerald’s bid for a shutout, emerging victorious in a 3-0 final, it was the kind of performance where the hockey world caught up to her.
In spite of back-to-back losses against the Beauts near season’s end, Fitzgerald’s 1.87 goals against average, .920 save percentage and .800 winning percentage were part of a much richer narrative of goaltending brilliance. Delivering in the playoffs with an undefeated mark, it was part of a dream season that culminated with an Isobel Cup triumph,
“It meant so much to be able to win it with this group. We have had an amazing year, and this was the perfect way to cap it off.”
Emerging as an essential contributor towards the Riveters reaching first overall in the regular season standings, such status was not taken for granted by Fitzgerald heading into the postseason. With a Cup final match that resulted in a collision course with the defending champion Buffalo Beauts, any sense of expectation was taken as a personal challenge.
“With finishing as the number one seed, it always comes with pressure and expectations, but Buffalo has been right there with us all year and every game, no matter who you play is an intense battle. They were the defending champions and we knew that they were going to do anything to be able to repeat.
This year, we did our best to enter each playoff game with a smile and enjoy it because playoffs are full of high pressure situations, which are the most fun because of the emotions and intensity that come with them. It brings out the best in everyone and these are the situations that you dream to be in.”
Certainly, the semi-finals of the postseason provided Fitzgerald and her Riveters teammates with tremendous momentum. Continuing on the theme of history, she recorded the first playoff shutout in Riveters history, blanking the Connecticut Whale in a 5-0 whitewash. Requiring only 13 saves, while Rebecca Russo, Erika Lawler, Madison Packer, Bray Ketchum and Kelly Nash contributed goals, the subsequent match would provide an even greater conclusion.
While the road to the Isobel Cup would result in a very hard-earned win against the Buffalo Beauts, it was definitely Fitzgerald’s finest hour. Opposing fellow All-Star goaltender Amanda Leveille, this year’s recipient of the NWHL’s Goaltender of the Year Award, Fitzgerald entered the match with ample motivation, eager to prove her status as an elite goaltender.
As the match developed into an offensive struggle, both sides constantly frustrated by the superlative goaltending between the pipes, Fitzgerald may have shouldered slightly more pressure. With league MVP Alexa Gruschow scoring in the first period, the rest of the game was one where Fitzgerald performed assiduously in the effort to protect the lead. As a side note, Leveille also played valiantly, nullifying four power play opportunities.
In reflecting on this epic match, a 1-0 final that saw Fitzgerald become the first goaltender to log consecutive playoff shutouts, it was the type of brilliant performance that elevated her into legendary status,
“I think it was the best playoff game we have played so far, being able to stay strong and calm during a high pressure game like that. It couldn’t have come at a better time. We all worked together, they bailed me out when it was needed and I tried to do the same for them.”
Honored as the Most Valuable Player of the postseason, Fitzgerald was gracious in victory. Recognizing a group of valued individuals, each a key contributor in the evolution of her career, a captivating path that culminated with the attainment towards such a glorious moment, there is the feeling of a shared victory. Encompassing the feeling of friendship and teamwork, while anticipating a Day with the Cup, Fitzgerald has emerged as one of the true feel-good stories of the season, leaving an unforgettable mark in the growing legacy of the NWHL.
“I just want to dedicate it to my family, friends, teammates and coaches (past and present) because everyone who has believed in me and encouraged me along the way mean so much to me. I have been flooded with love from family, friends and even teammates from U10 hockey. I think those connections are so important, so I cannot wait to bring the cup home to Illinois this summer.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Photo Credits: Troy Parla